My analysis runs counter to that of the national “talking heads” that appeared on the major cable networks after last night’s debate. These pundits tend to declare winners and losers based upon a superficial evaluation of the optics of the candidate’s performance.
I judge debates differently. Specifically, I evaluate 1) where the debate left the candidate in terms of his or her issue positioning; and 2) how well did the candidate project leadership qualities, particularly presidential gravitas.
Joe Biden was already having the best week of his campaign, due to the arrest of Rudy Giuliani’s Ukraine fellow Biden dirt diggers. This totally destroyed the credibility of Donald Trump and Giuliani in their attempt to defame Biden as a practitioner of corruption in Ukraine. The walls of the political temple are quickly closing in on Trump, and he is no Samson.
Biden topped off his week of recovery with an excellent debate performance, largely benefitting from his more extensive issue experience as senator and vice-president. On foreign policy issues, at a time when Trump’s corruption and incompetence has placed these matters on center-stage, Biden displayed a mastery that no other Democratic candidate could match. On economic issues, he displayed complete policy making coherence as to the interplay between tax and expenditure policy. On gun control, he was able to cite his role in passage of the assault weapons ban during the Clinton administration.
Yet the most significant Biden thrust was on health care. He, as well as Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Senator Amy Klobuchar emphasized that while Bernie Sanders has forthrightly stated that he will raise taxes in order to finance Medicare for All, the current front runner, Elizabeth Warren, has failed to do so. This is a significant flaw, significantly affecting the credibility of both her as a candidate overall and specifically, her health care proposals as well. The companion flaw in Warren’s Medicare for All is the deprivation of the private health insurance option for current policy holders. Warren continued to have no credible response for this situation.
There was one issue that Biden could have handled better, namely the issue of his son, Hunter Biden and his statements that 1) he showed “poor judgment” in agreeing to work for Burisma the Ukraine energy company in question; and 2) his intention “not to serve on boards of, or work on behalf of, foreign owned companies.”
When asked about Hunter, Biden basically dodged the question. He didn’t have to.
There is a very easy answer for Biden to give on Hunter. All he has to do is say that he has made the decision not to allow any family member to serve in the White House in order to avoid any appearance of impropriety even when none exists. Why doesn’t he do that?
Nevertheless, this was the only flaw in the Biden presentation. He projected gravitas and competence expected of a president. He looked healthy and vigorous and promised a full disclosure of his health records, dispelling in large part concerns about his age.
By contrast, Warren had her worst debate night. As the current polling frontrunner, she had to expect to be the principal target of her opponents. Warren is not an effective counterpuncher, however and she appeared uncomfortable in that role.
Perhaps the worst news of the night for Warren happened off the debate stage. The announcement that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is endorsing Bernie Sanders is most significant. Both Sanders and Warren must carry a majority of Progressive Democrats to win the nomination, and the AOC endorsement could be a decisive factor in Bernie winning that base. Plus, Bernie always has a good debate performance, as he did last night.
Both Buttigieg and Klobuchar performed exceptionally well last night. Their target is center-left mainstream voters, however, and they can only make incursions into that voting bloc if Biden starts to falter. Both boosted their vice-presidential prospects, however, particularly Klobuchar, since Biden is likely to pick a woman if he is the presidential nominee.
To sum it up: Biden benefitted substantially from the new focus on foreign affairs resulting from the worsening Trump scandals, while Warren’s inability to deal with the two major flaws in her Medicare for All proposal, namely the financing issue and the termination of private health insurance has created a major albatross for her. In my view, Biden was the clear winner.
It should be noted that Biden only needs to win one of the first three Democratic contests – the Iowa caucuses, the New Hampshire primary, and the Nevada caucuses – in order to establish front runner status. Biden remains the favored candidate of a clear majority of African-American voters. That should enable him to win South Carolina comfortably and roll towards the nomination with victories in states after South Carolina that have large African-American constituencies, most notably Florida.
If Biden wins the nomination, as I expect, this will have a significant positive effect on the political fortunes of three New Jersey Democrats, notably public affairs guru Jim McQueeny, former Governor Jim Florio, and present Governor Phil Murphy.
McQueeny is a prominent outside advisor to Phil Murphy and has had for decades a close relationship to Biden’s inner circle of advisors. If Biden is elected president, Jim McQueeny becomes the “go-to” person among New Jersey Democrats to effect change at both the federal and state level.
While serving as a member of the House of Representatives, where he served as the chair of the
Transportation and Commerce Subcommittee, Jim Florio developed a close relationship with Joe Biden, who was then known as “Mr. Amtrak.” Every president has a group of informal senior advisors who formerly served in high positions in the federal government. These individuals are collectively known as the “wise persons,” and I would expect that Jim Florio would be a member of this elite coterie in a Biden administration.
Governor Phil Murphy would have one pressing need from a Biden administration, namely federal funding for the Hudson River Gateway Tunnel project. Jim McQueeny and Jim Florio could be of vital assistance to Governor Murphy in making the case for the project to a President Biden.
If Phil Murphy is successful in getting the necessary federal financing from a Biden administration for the Gateway Project, this will be a key in his winning a landslide reelection victory over a Republican candidate whose party brand in New Jersey has been destroyed by Trump toxicity.
Alan J. Steinberg served as Regional Administrator of Region 2 EPA during the administration of former President George W. Bush and as Executive Director of the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission.